Thursday, 29 June 2006

Idolatry: the Symbol over the Referent

Shall we protect our nation and our freedoms, or is our flag more important?

Earlier this week, the Senate came within 1 vote of wasting the time of legislators the country over by advancing the "cause" of a Constitutional Amendment to ban the desecration of the flag. My thanks go out to the 34 Senators who saved us from this nonsense - and shame on the 66 (or most of them) who voted for it.

Mark Kleiman stated it succinctly:
The notion of writing a restriction on freedom of expression into the text of the Constitution ought to offend every patriot. To pledge allegiance to the Flag instead of "the Republic for which it stands" is the political equivalent of the sin of idolatry: confusing a symbol with its referent, to the extreme of elevating the symbol above the referent.

The Bill of Rights is as central to that Republic as anything could be: surely more central than the Flag. So to deface the Bill of Rights in order to defend the Flag is political idolatry at its worst.
Then he goes on to allow that while sullying our Constitution is an offense, a statute against flag burning, if found constitutional would not be so objectionable. I can't agree - it would offend me - but I do see his point, and do agree with him that if the aye votes on the amendment by a few swing state Democrats help them retain their seats, that is probably worth it. Really it's the Republicans that ought to know better and speak sense to the American public. Few have much backbone when it comes to confronting the deep-seated emotional illogic which consumes so many Americans around reverence for the flag.

Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Robert Bennett of Utah, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky were the lone Republicans willing to defend the Constitution rather than pander to false patriotism. Mitch McConnell's statement shows that there is a way to frame such a vote, and still do the requisite pandering anyway. It also shows that this is not an ideologically tied position. McConnell and Bennett are not among the more moderate Republicans. In fact, I recall that in 1989 when the Supreme Court held that anti-flag burning statutes are unconstitutional, it was arch-conservative Scalia who cast the deciding vote.

So enjoy your Fourths, folks - wave your flags - attend your parades, but watch out for any demagogues who try to impugn the patriotism of any of the 34 who avoided idolatry this week.

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